Bertolt Brecht was born on February 10, 1898, in Augsburg, Bavaria. His father Bertolt Friedrich Brecht worked in a paper factory and rose to a management position there. His mother, Sophie Brezing, gave birth to another son, Walter, in 1900, but became ill with breast cancer and suffered with it during Bertolt’s youth. Bertolt was born with a congenital heart disease and a facial tic and was a sickly child. At ten he went to a private school where he was educated in Latin and the humanities. Suffering a heart attack at twelve, he recovered and went on with his studies. He grew up with Luther’s German translation of the Bible, a considerable influence on his own language and themes. He began writing in school, founding and editing a school magazine. By the age of sixteen he was writing theater criticism for a newspaper and had written his first play.
During World War I, he did clerical work as alternative service for the war because of his health. In 1917 he enrolled in medical school in Munich and began writing his play Baal about immoral sexual attitudes. By 1919 he had fathered an illegitimate child with Paula Banholzer. In 1922 at the Kammerspiele in Munich his play Drums in the Night was performed and later played at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, for which he received the Kleist prize for young dramatists. Brecht married the opera singer Marianne Zoff, at the age of twenty-four. They had a daughter, Hanne. In 1923 his two plays Jungle of Cities and Baal were performed. After moving to Berlin in 1924, he met a Communist Viennese actress, Helene Weigel, eventually marrying her in 1929 and having two children. She became his lifelong partner in the Berliner Theater. Other early plays of note are the popular The Threepenny Opera (1928) Saint Joan of the Stockyards (1929) and The Mother (1930).
A Marxist, Brecht used theater to champion the cause of the worker through what he called epic theater, depicting the struggles of the common man against capitalism and fascism. During the Nazi regime in Germany, he joined other Germans in exile in Hollywood writing for films. It was during this time he wrote some of his most famous plays: The Life of Galileo (1937), Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), The Good Person of Szechwan (1943) and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944), During the McCarthy era, the House Un-American Activities Committee called Brecht to account for his Communist allegiance. He went back to East Berlin in 1949 where he assembled his own theater company, the renowned Berliner Ensemble.
Brecht wrote dozens of plays, reworking themes from other playwrights, such as Shakespeare and Sophocles. He received the German National Prize in 1951 and in 1954, the Lenin Peace Prize. Brecht died of a heart attack on August 14, 1956, leaving behind one of the great modernist legacies of theater and theater criticism.